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Snail dishes in Saigon cuisine

Tue, 13 Jan 2015 . Last updated Thu, 25 Jun 2015 08:59

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Snail dishes in Saigon cuisine are so good. You will not find any other places with hundreds of dishes from snails like Saigon. What’s more, they reflect the nature of Saigonese people who are friendly and hospitable.

Through many historical ups and downs, culture in Saigon, a 300-year-old-city, has got richer thanks to cultural interactions with many other places. Saigon food is not an exception. Coming to Saigon, people from different parts of the country take home dishes along with them. Those who come to Saigon remember all the streets that are famous for delicious and original dishes. And when it comes to snacks in Saigon, we cannot but mention dishes from snails which are not difficult to make and enjoy.

It’s not difficult to find a snail stall in Saigon. Snail stall is the common name of stalls selling different aquatic products. And there is an abundant of snail recipes which are so appealing, such as the steamed snails, boiled snails, stir-fried snails, grilled snails, barbecue snails, etc. with varieties of spices like garlic, onions, pepper, chili, Vietnamese coriander, etc.

We are at Binh Dien wholesale market at 4 am. The market gathers aquatic products from other localities. Aquatic products of different kinds are quickly offered for sale at kiosks.  The market buzzes with sellers and buyers. The market has 442 aquatic kiosks, which provide 1,000 tonnes of aquatic products a day for people in the city, including 200 tonnes of mollusks like oysters, scallops and snails. 100-120kg snacks of oysters and snails are unloaded and classified. There are special trucks carrying seawater and ice chips to keep these aquatic products fresh.

A large amount of mollusks from different parts of the country like Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, Vung Tau, Ca Mau, Ben Tre and Can Gio and the North is taken to Binh Dien and then markets within the city before dawn. We follow a truck that is taking snails from Binh Dien market into the city. It’s time for this seemingly sleepless city to sleep. Yet a new working day starts at snail stalls. We turn into a small alley by Nguyen Trai Street. This is the place where a famous and long-standing snail stall in Saigon is nested.

A large snail stall in Saigon needs hundreds of kilograms of assorted snails every day. Street snail needs nearly 10 kilograms of snails of different kinds. Remarkably, snails are still covered with mud. Amazingly, such snails spattered with mud in the morning become clean, tasty and attractive in the evening. It takes several minutes to clean each basket of snails these snails with spraying water. Cleaned snails will be put into a big pot and parboiled. It takes much strength to conduct these two steps. Therefore, these steps are often undertaken by men. Women will prepare accompanying herbs and spices and classify parboiled snails.

You may think snail dishes are very easy to make. Bringing snails home from the market, you just need to wash mud from the snails and boil them with suitable spices. But it’s not so, actually. It takes much effort to classify snails which are of different kinds and have different ways to prepare. For example, boiled red snails have their meat pulled out of the shells. The brown part at the bottom of the snail meat should be removed before the meat is put again into the shell. “Toi” (garlic) snails have their meat in the shape of a garlic bulb which is the tastiest part of the snail. “Dua” (coconut) snails have thick tasty meat. The white part at the top of the scallop meat is the tastiest part. It takes much effort, meticulousity, patience and skillfulness to do all these things. 

Apart from the snail meat accompanying spices are prepared very early. For example, pork scratchings are already spiced with chopped garlic. Coconut milk is made at home from fresh coconut meat. These people have to prepare snails from down till noon. Some other spices are prepared in the afternoon. And in the evening, delicious snail dishes are ready to be served. Snail dishes in Saigon stand out thanks to some special kinds of sauce. These kinds of sauce are made from the fruits that are found abundantly in the South.

It’s not difficult to see tamarind trees laden with fruit along the streets in Saigon. Saigonese people use tamarinds for many dishes, such as sour soup, fish sauce mixed with tamarind juice, refresher and especially snails stir-fried with tamarind sauce. The tamarind sauce is cooked with sugar into a viscous liquid. Remove tamarind wastes. The sauce is ready to be served. The deliciousness of the sauce is decided by each tamarind fruit to make it. It takes time and patience to cool the sauce. Or sugar in the sauce will be badly burned and spoiled the sauce.

Apart from dishes cooked with the tamarind sauce, snail dishes with coconut milk are in favor, such as Cerithidea obtuse in coconut milk. Long snails will have their bottoms broken so that the snails can marinate well and the dishes will be more delicious. Cerithidea obtuse in coconut milk is often made first. Put snails into a big pot. Snails will be covered totally with coconut milk, sugar and condensed milk and cooked over a low fire. When the dish is done to a turn, a little Vietnamese coriander and chili will be added. The dish will be left to cool before being served so that all spices can permeate through the snail meat.

According to those who love dishes from snails this snail stall is a pioneer in creating new snail dishes. This is a must-go place for those who love dishes from snails. Snail dishes of this stall can be found in many other stalls. But it is said that no one could pass the owner of the stall for her creative cooking skills. Luckily, she is the one who will help us make some snail dishes. And the first dish is Littorina littorea in spicy tamarind sauce.

Afternoon is the best time to start a charcoal fire and grill snails. It’s easy to make grilled snails. Small snails are often used to make sauté dishes. Larger ones suit grilled dishes better. There are over a dozen kinds of snails. But there are 4 ways to grill them, namely ethnic style grilled snails, grilled snails with cheese, grilled snails with liquid fat and onions, and grilled snails with sweetened fish sauce. Finally, the cook-together part is over. And I have many snail dishes here. Amazingly, there are dishes that I have seen before. Perhaps the owner of the stall wants to feast me with a hearty meal for the efforts I put into cooking some dishes in the kitchen. Saigonese people from past to present are always hospitable as such. 

Taking a walk around the streets famous for snail dishes, both local people and tourists to Saigon can easily recognize the bustle in the world of snail dishes. Earlier, Saigonese people were familiar with several famous snail stalls like “gao” snail stalls on Ky Dong Street, mussel stalls by Chuong Duong wharf, Cerithidea obtuse in coconut milk stall on Ho Hao Hon Street and “dua” snail in butter stall on Truong Minh Giang Street. Then snail stalls mushroomed along many streets in the city. Going to Nguyen Thuong Hien Street in District 3, we can find over a dozen snail stalls alternating with clothing shops and groceries. Such small stalls have 3-4 tables.

Snails are put into plastic baskets so that diners can easily pick out the snails they wish. This is also a good way to welcome diners to stalls. On Vinh Khanh Street, District 4, which is separated from District 1 by a bridge, hundreds of snail stalls stand close together. These large snail stalls have tens of tables. The street is often in a peak hour from 11pm to 3am. Many diners go to the street during this period of time, stirring up the atmosphere there.

Snail stalls in small alleys are of course less bustling than big ones on famous streets. If you want to enjoy snail dishes in a quiet space, such stalls are the most ideal places. Although the stalls ae small, they sell many different kinds of snails. Some snail dishes with vegetables here taste so good and are also good for the digestive system. Plus, snails from small stalls in alleys are often priced lower. The stalls have special dishes that cannot be found elsewhere to welcome diners back next time, such as crab pincers, sauté noodles with snails and vegetables, etc.

Snail dishes have been made for years in Saigon and easily gripped local diners and tourists. Snail dishes from both small and large stalls always bring you different feelings and the genuine sweet taste of aquatic products. It explains why no one can refuse to drop into a snail stall when they are invited, because in this way, they can try plain but unique dishes in Saigon.


Source: VTC10 - NETVIET

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